[lg policy] Losing our languages

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat May 5 10:41:49 EDT 2018


   - <https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/>

Losing our languages India is one of the countries with the world’s largest
number of living languages. But under the onslaught of dominant languages,
many local tongues and dialects are dying a slow death. Will the attempts
to revive them take wing? india
<https://www.hindustantimes.com/longreads/> Updated:
May 04, 2018 23:50 IST
[image: KumKum Dasgupta]
KumKum Dasgupta <https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/kumkum-dasgupta>
Hindustan Times
[image: The Khojki script and Gondi lipi are being developed by Karambir
Singh Rohilla, a New Delhi-based typeface designer who specialises in Indic
and English language fonts. Banwang Losu, a school teacher in the Longding
district of Arunachal Pradesh, is working on the Wancho script.]
The Khojki script and Gondi lipi are being developed by Karambir Singh
Rohilla, a New Delhi-based typeface designer who specialises in Indic and
English language fonts. Banwang Losu, a school teacher in the Longding
district of Arunachal Pradesh, is working on the Wancho
script.(Illustration: Animesh Debnath)

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Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’ is a fascinating
book. Other than being a searing account of the marginalisation of tribals
in Jharkhand, there is another reason to be effusive about it: Just below
the title on the aquamarine-coloured cover, which has a sketch of a hand on
a dhol, are four words in Santhali’s Ol-Chiki script: ‘Aale Hor Bale Eneja’
(‘We Santhals Will Not Dance’). “My mother tongue, Santhali, was my first
medium of communication with my family. After having learnt at least three
other languages, it is still my first medium of communication with my
family. I cannot describe how important it is for me,” says Shekhar. “I put
them [the Santhali words] on the cover because I felt they should’ve been
there. It was for me”.

While Shekhar’s love and support for his language are touching, Santhali is
lucky to have another strong supporter: the Indian State. It is one of the
22 scheduled languages of the country. These lucky ones get State support
for their development and dissemination, the Union Public Services
Examination can be taken in them, and some even find a place on our
currency notes.
*Tower Of Babel*

India, however, is home to more than 22 languages. It is, as the former
University of Baroda English professor and the man behind the People’s
Linguistic Survey of India, Ganesh Devy, says, a “dense forest of voices”,
a noisy Tower of Babel, with hundreds of languages and dialects. While
languages are typically prestigious, official, written; dialects are spoken
and unofficial. Russian Jewish linguist Max Weinreich summed up their
relationship pithily: a language is a dialect with an army and navy.

Unfortunately, India’s diversity of languages (dialects included) is facing
an existential crisis. In the last few decades, experts say, the country
has lost a few hundred languages because of lack of government patronage,
absence of credible data on them, dwindling numbers of speakers, poor
primary education in local languages, migration of tribals from villages,
and the lack of a cohesive national language policy.
Tech Extends A Helping Hand
Technology companies are showing great interest in endangered languages.
This is because they are realising that content on the Internet is
overwhelmingly English and that is stopping them from acquiring new non-
English speaking users. So Google has an endangered languages project, a
platform for interested people to share research and collaborate on
endangered languages.
Microsoft too sees language technology as a vehicle to provide Internet
access to speakers of endangered languages. "We can make the documentation
less laborious by providing tools such as an interface on mobile phones to
record and annotate the language, or input mechanisms such as language
keyboards," says Kalika Bali, researcher, Microsoft Research India. They
can also help to make web content available in these languages directly or
through speech interfaces.

The loss of languages is a global phenomenon. “When languages are not
transmitted to children, they become endangered and are likely to become
extinct,” warns Mandana Seyfeddinipur, director, World Languages Institute,
School of Languages, Cultures, and Linguistics, SOAS, University of London.
“While throughout human history, speakers have shifted to other languages,
the speed of this development has dramatically increased over the past
century. It is estimated that the loss of language diversity is happening
on the scale of the fifth mass extinction.”

Explaining why languages must be saved, she adds: “Each of these vanishing
languages expresses a unique knowledge, history, and worldview of the
speakers’ community. Each is a distinct evolved variation of the human
capacity for language”. Many of these languages of the world have never
been described or recorded, so the richness of human linguistic diversity
is disappearing without a trace. Linguists estimate that there are around
7,000 languages spoken worldwide and at least half of those will be lost by
the end of this century.
*Dying A Slow Death*

In India, many languages are dead or in the throes of extinction, thanks to
their political marginalisation that started when state boundaries were
drawn based on linguistic lines. Languages that had scripts were counted
and the ones without a script (and therefore, without printed literature)
lost out in the race. Schools and colleges were established only in the
‘official’ languages. The ones without scripts found no place in the
education system.
Scheduled languages
The Constitution does not give any language the status of national
language. It designates the official language as Standard Hindi, as well as
English. The 22 scheduled languages are: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri,
Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Kannada, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri,
Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu,
Documenting lost languages
Linguists go to the chosen community and start with a pilot to check
logistics, spend time with the community to build confidence; draw up word
lists, questionnaires about their social practices. This is followed with
video recordings, validation and figuring out the dialect. If the
endangered language does not have a script, then the dominant language
script is used.
State schemes
The Centre in 2014 initiated a scheme called "Protection and Preservation
of Endangered Languages of India". Under this scheme, the Central Institute
of Indian Languages, Mysuru, works on the protection, preservation, and
documentation of all the mother tongues/languages spoken by less than
10,000 people.

The maximum impact of such political and social marginalisation has been on
languages spoken by poor communities such as tribals. Take, for example,
Gondi. The language is spoken by nearly 12 million Gond adivasis, who live
in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Madhya
Pradesh. And yet, there is no one standardised Gondi language that unifies
them all. Different versions and dialects exist, specific to the
geographical areas that they live in, with influences of the regional
languages seeping in.

Administrative oversight followed political sidelining. The 1961 Census
recorded 1,652 languages. But since the 1971 Census, languages spoken by
less than 10,000 people have been lumped as “others”. The language data of
the 2011 Census, the most recent, has not even been made public. However,
in a recent Press Trust of India report, a Census directorate official
admitted that “40 languages and dialects are in danger of disappearing
because they are spoken by less than 10,000 people”.

Such political and administrative omission has given rise to a caste system
of sorts among languages. In an article in the Economic and Political
Weekly, Hany Babu MT, associate professor, Department of English,
University of Delhi, blames the Constitution for failing to “pay more than
lip service to the linguistic plurality and multilingual ethos of the
peoples of India”. He adds that the Constitution – even though it does not
give any language the status of national language – has created a
chaturvarna (four-tier order) of languages, with Sanskrit, Hindi, the
scheduled, and the non-scheduled languages occupying various rungs of the
ladder. English, of course, is outside the “chaturvarna system”, but
carries a special position, thanks to its “emancipatory potential”.
*Saving The Endangered*

While the State is yet to release the full report on India’s language
diversity (some claim this is because such a report will have political
ramifications), there are several State-led, institutional and private
efforts, albeit fragmented, to document endangered languages. For example,
Devy has documented 780 living languages and claims that 400 of them are at
risk of dying.

But there could be more than what Devy’s team documented. Recently, a
linguistics professor at the University of Hyderabad, Panchanan Mohanty,
discovered two languages spoken in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh: Walmiki and
Language Warriors To The Rescue
*Shubhranshu Choudhary,* founder, CGNet Swara
Gondi is spoken by 12 million Gond adivasis and yet, there is no one
standardised Gondi language that unifies them all. Different versions and
dialects exist, specific to the geographical areas they live in, with
influences of the regional languages seeping in. Choudhary is working on a
dictionary project that is standardising Gondi language, and prompting the
State to include it in the schedule language list.
"The lack of standardised Gondi has led to a chasm between the State and
the Gondi-speaking tribals of Chhattisgarh. This was exploited by Maoists
who not only speak their language but also lived with them," says
Choudhary. "If everyone has a standardised dictionary, then journalists,
administrators or teachers can emerge from within the community. They don’t
need to drop out of schools and take up the gun. They could work with All
India Radio to start a news service in Gondi," adds Choudhary.
"It’s a slow process, but if we believe that Maoism is the biggest internal
security threat, then we need to look into this."
*Banwang Losu and Rahul Ranadive*
It’s been 15 years since Banwang Losu, a school teacher (on the left, in
the picture above), began work on collecting sounds to develop a font for
the Wancho language, which is spoken by the Wancho tribe of Arunachal
Pradesh. The font is now almost ready with just a few technical steps that
need to be covered. Losu has worked single-handedly on the development of
the script with support from some community elders and college friends,
spending hours learning from books and the web. While all are unanimous in
appreciating the efforts made by Losu, it is now imperative to take it
formally to the Wancho-speaking community.
"The need of the hour is a well-thought-out Wancho Language Primer. This
will facilitate learning of the font at school and within communities via
volunteering by teachers and others from the Wancho Literary Mission
(registered Society)," says Rahul Ranadive (on the right, in the picture on
the left), a photographer and filmmaker, who is developing a strategy and
coordinating inputs to take the project forward. There are an estimated
50,000 Wanchos in the state.
*Dr Shailendra Mohan,* Deccan College, Pune
Nihali is an isolated language and is spoken by about 2,000 speakers in
Jalgaon-Jamod Tehsil, Buldhana district, Maharashtra. Dr Mohan, professor,
and head of department of Linguistics, is working on a detailed descriptive
grammar, a trilingual dictionary (Nihali- Hindi-English) and 20 hours of
archival audio and video recordings of speech samples in different genres,
including stories, myths and legends, and historical accounts that may
serve as the basis for educational materials. "The main problem of
documenting such languages is that the speakers are illiterate and it’s
difficult to find community members who can answer our questions," says Dr

The first step of saving an endangered language is documenting it, a
Herculean task. “It is a lengthy process and needs huge resources because
it’s not just about documenting the language but also socio-cultural
practices and ethnic practices of the community,” says Dr DG Rao, director,
Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysuru. “More importantly,
researchers need a lot of time.” While there are many researchers
documenting India’s dying languages, there has been no standardisation of
the process. To streamline it, CIIL has come up with a manual for language
documentation, parameters for a timeline and is also training people
working on projects on how to go about it.

“A language can only survive if it is used …. It’s the younger generation,
which has to drive this process as they are the ones that will carry the
knowledge and transmit it,” says Seyfeddinipur. Other than in homes, these
languages need to be taught in schools.

Thereby hangs a tale in India.

In 2014, Karnataka started the policy of mother tongue as medium of
instruction at the primary level. But parents of students went to the
Supreme Court against the order. The apex court held that the imposition of
the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary classes in
government-recognised, aided or unaided private schools was
unconstitutional, and it should be left to children and parents to decide
on which language of instruction they prefer.
*Need Of The Hour*

The role of the mother tongue in schools, which can help languages to
survive, is a fuzzy area in India because there is no language policy in
place. “A comprehensive language policy could be a statement of intent, and
can be implemented as a procedure or protocol. Currently, India has no
guidelines for ensuring the survival of these languages,” says Dr
Purushothama Bilimale, professor of Kannada, Centre of Indian Languages,
School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru

Take, for example, Koraga. There are not more than 45-50 people (all in
their 60s) in the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka who
speak this language. “Their children have not learnt this language and have
moved to Tulu, the powerful local language and to Kannada, the official
language of Karnataka. In the next decade or so, there will be no
Koraga-speaking people left. This is how a language dies,” says Bilimale.

Another example is Ruga in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya. The community is
supposed to speak Ruga but speaks Garo, the dominant language of the area.
Today, there are only three speakers left.
Read more

   New education policy will give Hindi its due importance, says minister

The National Education Policy of 1968 – a revision is in the works –
however, tried to push local languages by recommending a complicated
three-language formula.

The first language would be the mother tongue/regional language; the
second, in Hindi-speaking states, would be any other modern Indian
language/English and in non-Hindi-speaking states, the second language
would be Hindi or English. When it comes to the third language, in
Hindi-speaking states, it would be English or a modern Indian language not
studied as the second language; and in non-Hindi-speaking states, the third
language would be English or a modern Indian language not studied as the
second language.

This was accepted in principle by states but never applied.

“The Constitution leaves the choice of language for children to the
parents; exploiting this, states have encouraged English-medium schools and
allowed private entrepreneurs to move into the field that should have been
the State’s domain,” says Dr Rao. “Then came the IT sector and imprinted in
the minds of parents that English must be the lingua franca…It’s difficult
for languages, even the major ones, to survive such lopsided policies and
increasing preference for foreign languages in schools”.

Is it surprising then that the language tree is slowly wilting in a country
that, along with Nigeria, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, has the largest
number of living languages?

 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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